HOUSTON — On the hardwood floor of the Toyota Center, Mike D’Antoni likes to meander. The Houston Rockets begin every practice with players scattered across it: stretching, shooting, circling at center court for group yoga. The 67-year-old coach habitually starts at the baseline, or near the benches, and works his way across, directionless, but with clear purpose.
“How you doing?” he’ll ask the first player he passes.
“What’s good?” he’ll remark to the next.
These are brief interactions, but D’Antoni cherishes them. In a league where players communicate with assistants twice as often as the coach atop, D’Antoni values his constant check-ins with his players, from the top of the roster to the bottom. Not only does the pre-practice setting allow easy access, but it allows D’Antoni to approach his players on their own terms, rather than waiting until they bring him their problems.
Not that they often do, anyway.
“Ah, Mike’s cool as shit,” says Gerald Green, who signed with the Rockets in late December, days before a planned Jan. 1 retirement. “That’s my guy. Ever since I got here, he’s made me feel comfortable.”
Saying D’Antoni’s name usually conjures up images of Steve Nash and the famous Phoenix Suns Seven Seconds Or Less offense. D’Antoni certainly fathered the league’s recent on-court revolutions, but the way he works with his players has also stood tall as a league-wide trend. D’Antoni doesn’t strives to build typical player-coach relationships as much as actual, human bonds with his understudies. That, in turn, creates the environment he loves.
“Me personally, I just function better in a situation where it’s very positive and it’s fun,” D’Antoni says. “Everyone’s looking forward to going to practice, looking forward to being in the locker room with the guys, looking forward to talking to the coaches, because you know you’re just trying to get better.”
With these Western Conference Finals pitting D’Antoni against the Golden State Warriors and head coach Steve Kerr, that same player-coach environment is showing up everywhere. There’s a fascinating dynamic between the two managers, with Kerr quickly crediting how the older D’Antoni influenced him.
“Mike made a big impact on me,” Kerr says. “What I was most impressed with was his ability to give confidence to players. He was the first coach I ever saw who would get on a guy for not shooting, and I loved that about him. I saw it with individual players, whether it was Grant Hill, or Raja Bell, guys who would come to Phoenix and Mike would not only implore them to shoot, but demand that they shoot.”
Kerr and D’Antoni only spent 11 months on the same side, when Kerr served as general manager during D’Antoni’s final year coaching Phoenix in 2009. The two clashed enough over basketball issues that the offensive innovator departed for the New York Knicks in the offseason, but there’s a clear mutual respect that has developed between them ever since.
It wasn’t long ago that D’Antoni himself was a Warriors fan. In early 2015, out of a head coaching job for the first time since 2003, D’Antoni spent his time golfing in West Virginia and watching an upstart team that reminded him of his Suns teams. As the Warriors gunned their way to a championship in Kerr’s first season, D’Antoni saw a team vindicating everything he believed about basketball.
“I was excited for the team, and watching them play as a fan, because back then I wasn’t really working,” D’Antoni says. “I couldn’t wait to turn it on. That’s kind of how I wanted to coach.”
The Warriors’ style is nothing like those Phoenix teams, shunning pick-and-rolls for rapid movement and frequent off-ball screens. But they share philosophical identities, both on the court (valuing spacing and switchability) and off it, where Kerr coaches much like D’Antoni.
“I think Mike was definitely at the forefront of this idea that it should be really fun, and I think our team thrives on that idea, and I thought the Suns teams did too,” Kerr says. “The similarities between Steph [Curry] and Steve Nash are glaring, in terms they make emotionally on their teams.”
The two teams share so much: a belief in their players, an emphasis on joy, an appreciation for their craft and all that comes with it. As the league pivots to the modern age, more and more coaches emphasize those same fundamentals, rather than rock-hard disciplinarians trying to change their players by voice modulation alone.
“That’s definitely the trend,” Kerr says. “I don’t think your seeing as many of the old school coaches, my way or the highway, light into the guy, but that’s a generational thing.”
These days, D’Antoni is the same coach he was in Phoenix. He raises his voice during games, but almost never at his players, and even that D’Antoni doesn’t jive with the one people know off the court.
“Mike in game is very different from Mike not in game,” says Monte McNair, the Rockets vice president of basketball operations. “I’m not on the bench, so I don’t see him live and up close during games. Whenever I see him, he’s perfectly calm, he’s listening to some soft music.”
(That’s the background sound for the Rockets’ coaching meetings. D’Antoni’s Pandora station alternates from soft rock to classical to the occasional country song, McNair says.)
Coaches say there are two things players will instantly sniff out: not knowing hoops, and trying to be someone you aren’t. D’Antoni didn’t choose this coaching style, necessarily. It’s just representational of who he is.
“Sometimes, on other teams, you have to think about a coach, what he’s thinking,” says Luc Mbah a Moute, another Rockets newcomer and first-time D’Antoni pupil. “You don’t even have to think about him.”
D’Antoni rejects the idea that he’s solely responsible for these trends, or that he ever set out to change the league. Kerr’s right, too, in citing the new generation for these changes in coaching demeanor.
But regardless, D’Antoni was and still is a trailblazer coaching 10 years ahead of his time — not just through his on-court innovation, but in the very manner in which he coaches. He always thought his philosophy would work, and now he’s facing the very team and coach that proved it does.
“We’re indebted to [Kerr], because he showed the world you can have fun, you can take any shot you want, you can play a certain style of basketball and win it all,” D’Antoni says. “I couldn’t do that. I always thought you could, but I didn’t show it, and he did.”
Win or lose this series, D’Antoni will be right again.